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Warning on boys’ voices

11 January 2013

BOYS' voice are breaking earlier, with implications for choirs, new research suggests.

A historical study of the timing of puberty and voice-change in boys was conducted by Professor Martin Ashley, head of research at Edge Hill University's Faculty of Education, in collaboration with Dr Ann-Christine Mecke of the Hochschule für Musik und Theater Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, in Germany. They analysed 1000 boys' voices.

The study concluded that, for the past 2000 years, boys' voices have tended to break at the age of 14, but that between 1960 and 2012, the percentage of 14-year-olds who were completing puberty had risen from 36 per cent to 62 per cent. Professor Ashley believes that, in Year 8 (the second year of secondary school, during which pupils reach the age of 13), "you might have to retire anything between one third and two-thirds of choristers."

He concludes: "It will prudent to plan for a lower age demographic. Boys need to be recruited at younger ages, and more attention needs to be given to high-quality kindergarten work and the creation of junior training choirs." Cathedrals should plan to have choirboys aged eight to 12 rather than nine to 13, he suggests. "If you have some 13-year-olds still singing, that is wonderful, but be prepared for more and more not to be."

Professor Ashley said that boys recruited while at primary school were "very loyal. . . They can learn to love singing in a church choir. It is their life."

He plans to conduct further research with a larger sample of 14-year-old boys. He has collaborated with Professor David Howard from the University of York to produce a smartphone app that will instantly assess the voices of thousands of boys.


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